By Stephen Dobie
Honda’s fight to retain its FIM Endurance title continued with a strong podium finish in the 24H Spa EWC Motos. The F.C.C. TSR Honda France team followed up a stylish victory at Le Mans with a second place at Spa-Francorchamps, taking the chequered flag two laps up on their BMW Motorrad rivals who’d proved victorious around the historic Belgian circuit in 2022.
Spa is one of the most iconic and spectacular loops of tarmac on any global race calendar. Its plunging elevation, 20 turns and 4.3 miles (7.0km) test the strength and stamina of both a bike and its rider to the absolute limit over a 24-hour period.
The team pushed for second place after a small technical issue, the bike spending under 30 minutes of the race duration in the pits, a figure pipped only by the YART Yamaha crew that stood atop the podium. Honda’s 25 pitstops made it among the most time-efficient setups on the 36-strong grid, a handful of safety car periods helping trim an initial 27-29 stop strategy.
The team used 52 Bridgestone tyres across the race, while roughly 600 litres of race fuel were consumed across the 571 laps clocked up by the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP. That equates to fuel consumption of around 20mpg. Not bad when you consider its 215bhp in-line four engine takes inspiration from MotoGP technology, a fact which makes the durability of the bike all the more impressive. Covering 2478 miles across the race, the Fireblade SP nudged the typical annual mileage of many sports bike owners in just one day.
The bike naturally undergoes a transformation over a roadgoing Fireblade, optimised for the unique punishment of endurance racing. A strengthened frame and longer wheelbase brings more confidence in corners and results in a bike that’s robust in the face of 55-minute rider shifts – often with only a minute’s breather between each stint as the pit crew works swiftly to change tyres, refuel and send a new rider on their way.
“Spa is unreal, and it suits our bike too,” says Australian Josh Hook, one third of the F.C.C. TSR Honda France riding team. “The Fireblade is really stable at high revs in faster corners. It’s tougher in the infield – that’s where the Yamaha is really good – but this is a great track. I like it and it suits the bike.”
Nonetheless, his French teammate Mike Di Meglio is hugely impressed by how close a street legal Fireblade gets to the race bike’s speed. “The race bike is harder with stiffer suspension. You can push it a lot more. But I’d say there’s around five to six seconds difference in lap time here at Spa. And only three seconds at Le Mans – with regular mirrors and everything kept as standard! You can go to the shop, buy a Fireblade and ride it that fast on track.”
While there’s immense physicality to hustling a race bike for roughly eight hours in one day –the three riders typically sharing stints equally – Mike says mental strength is yet more key to rider performance. “Most important is the mind,” he says. “If you look after that then your body will follow. The body can be exhausted but if the mind wants to win, you will chase. I can put my leathers on feeling tired but as soon as I’m on the bike, I go.”
Di Meglio has a routine for when his stint finishes: a massage, something to eat, and then calm time during which he’ll sleep. “I know I can sleep and I know I need to relax. I’ll wake up 40 minutes before my next stint to make sure I’m mentally and physically ready.”
It’s different for every rider, though, and his fellow Frenchman Alan Techer doesn’t rest quite as easily. “The stints here are shorter than at Le Mans because it’s a longer track,” he says. “So when you come back you’re speaking with the team, visiting your physio, but it’s hard to sleep.”
Keeping the trio in check is one of the many tasks overseen by F.C.C. TSR Honda France mechanic crew chief Elies Banús Brunet. “We need to be a little like psychologists,” he smiles, “taking care to understand the character of each rider. What works for one rider will not work for another.”
But while the riders get a massage and rest if they wish, the rest of pit crew doesn’t always have time to enjoy such privileges. “We don’t get that and we don’t have a spare mechanic!” he adds. “We make sure the crew are eating constantly with good food and that they drink a lot. It’s easy to get dehydrated in this heat.
“They can try and take small naps between each pitstop. But ten laps before the next planned stop they need to wake up just to ensure they are completely ready. For me, I try not to sleep. If I do, I’ll only sleep between 4am and 6am – and then it’ll be 20 minutes during each rider stint. But that’s all. And I’m always in the garage.”
There’ll be 25-30 people in the garage during a race weekend, but FIM rules dictate only four can work in the pitlane – if the bike requires more than a quick top-up of fuel, it must be wheeled into the garage for extra folks to work on it. Even then, six is the magic number for a team of mechanics who don’t wish to overcrowd the compact dimensions of the Fireblade SP.
The hustle, bustle and general air of focused concentration of Honda’s garage is underlined by a close-knit atmosphere, though. It’s vital to success, affirms Elies. “Our pit crew is good family. We come earlier in the week and spend time getting to know each other. We share our stories with each other to ensure we’re closer during those stressful 3am pit stops.”
Honda leaves Spa-Francorchamps with two podiums from two races in the 2023 EWC season, sitting one point behind leaders YART Yamaha in the championship standings.